Mervyn Peake on illustrating fiction

In 1947 the author and illustrator Mervyn Peake gave two presentations on BBC Radio, in which he took the opportunity to share his thoughts on the subject of book illustration. His insights still have significance for any author/illustrator collaboration today.

 Mervyn Peake (1911-1968), is most well known as the author of the Gormenghast trilogy - Titus Groan, Gormenghast and Titus Alone, but first and foremost he was an artist and book illustrator, his work on classics such as Treasure Island, The Hunting of the Snark, Alice and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner are masterful examples of black and white pen and ink art. In 1947 he was asked by Kay Fuller to give two talks for the BBC Pacific and African services. Extracts from these presentations are reproduced in Malcolm Yorke's fascinating biography Mervyn Peake - My Eyes Mint Gold (Overlook Press, NY 2000). 

Peake explained how the confines of wartime barracks had forced him to follow the path of illustration rather than painting. Studying the masters of illustration and graphic art "I began to realise that these men had more than a good eye, a hand, a good brain. These qualities were not enough. Nor was their power as designers, draughtsmen. Even passion was not enough. Nor was compassion, nor irony. All this they must have, but above all things there must be the power to slide into another man's soul. The power to be identified with author, character and atmosphere... 

"It is fatiguing, exacting work. Fatiguing not only because if one sets oneself a high standard the very technique sucks up one's energy, but fatiguing also because of the imaginative expenditure required if one illustrates, in the full meaning of the word."

In 1947 black and white text illustration for novels was widespread in publishing. Although sadly fewer novels are illustrated today, Peake's advice is just as pertinent to any illustrator working on the texts of others, whether longer fiction or picture books. He warns against taking the text at face value, producing "literal drawings which do not interpret or transmute the words into another medium, but merely repeat what the author has just said... (such drawings) underline the surface of the story or poem. They make no attempt to capture the 'colour' of the writing.

"One might say that books have different smells. Wuthering Heights smells different from Moby Dick, Green Mansions smells different from Tristram Shandy. The book of Job, smells different - very different - from The Fall of the House of Usher. It is for the illustrator to make his drawings have the same smell as the book he is illustrating. Most celebrated book illustrators impose their celebrated techniques upon whatever book they are illustrating, graft upon it as it were their famous mannerisms to the discomfiture of the fastidious reader... 

A drawing by Mervyn Peake for Treasure Island (1949)

"I find it essentially insensitive, however beautiful the book production may be, to couple fine works of literature with the alien and haphazard burgeoning of the finest artist - haphazard in the sense that they are not interpretations of the text, but manifestations of the artist's personality... 

"In book illustration the artist must not only synchronize all the aesthetic elements with which the pure painter has to juggle, but he must have, over and above this, the power to identify himself with another personality - that of the author he is interpreting, and also with the mood of the book. He must have, in other words, not only an imagination but a pliable one - a wide one, one that is sensitive to the overtones of music and words, that miraculous coinage. He must slay his own ego in order to relive. He must have the chameleon's power to take on the colour of the leaf he dwells on." 


John Shelley is the Illustration Feature Editor of Words & Pictures. He's illustrated over 40 books for children, many of them published in Japan where he lived for many years. Most recently he's illustrated Marion Bauer's Crinkle, Crackle, Crack! (Holiday House). His next picture book Will's Words, written by Jane Sutcliffe, is scheduled for release by Charlesbridge in the USA in Spring 2016.


  1. An inspiring read...wonderful that so many years later his vision on illustrating is just as relevant....Love the Treasure Island character.

  2. Yes, and I think it's it's all the more true today how artists tend to slap their trademark style on works without really taking on the vision of the text. Publishers positively encourage it when they rebrand an author's entire output with the same illustrator's work. It's great for series marketing, but maybe not for the stories, which may in a variety of tones. Every book is different!

  3. It's interesting and inspiring to dive into his world and thoughts


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